The Education Act 2002 (Modification of Provisions) (No. 2) (England) and The Education (Objection to Admission Arrangements) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2002

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Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that explanatory notes are often pretty hopeless and do not lead to a real understanding?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I agree. The prose of the explanatory note is as impenetrable as the body of the regulations. I feel sorry not only for Opposition Members but for Back Benchers on both sides of the House—and, indeed, for Ministers, because they have to answer our questions. There must be a better way of producing legislation.

3.18 pm

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): I know that you, Mr. Benton, are forbidden to take a view on such matters, but 50 per cent. of the parliamentary representatives of the borough of Sefton are in the Room. The admissions procedures will have a considerable impact on our constituents at this time of year—I am sure, Mr. Benton, that your experience is similar, but I do not wish to draw you in to the debate—because several of the schools in my constituency are heavily over-subscribed. A trail of parents, who are trying to negotiate their way through the labyrinth of the appeals procedure, have visited my surgeries.

I shall mention three schools in my constituency: Deyes high school, Maghull high school and Maricourt RC voluntary-aided school. In the next few months, I shall spend considerable time advising

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parents whether they have the basis of an appeal and, once they are going through the appeals procedure for Sefton council, how it works and how best they should tackle it. I raise that because my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) has, as he sometimes but not always does, put his finger on the nub of the argument. We may have differences on international relations, but on schools admissions we are as one.

Seriously, it is often difficult to give advice, even though Sefton council produces excellent guidelines and parents are usually prescient in getting hold of the various documents available for a school. The process is still a minefield for them. Let us say that, when I go to my surgery tomorrow night, some parents turn up to discuss it and I say, ''Ah, I was on a statutory instrument Committee yesterday that dealt with that subject. Here is the statutory instrument. That should help you.'' I suspect that, in that situation, my hon. Friend's point would be brought home forcefully to those parents, so I echo his plea for greater clarity.

I shall give a further example of the problem. Regulation 8(1)(a) is to be substituted with:

    ''by notification in writing to the parties to the objection and to all other bodies whom the admission authority were required to consult under section 89(2), or would but for section 89(2A) have been required so to consult about the proposed admission arrangements''.

New regulation 8(1)(b) refers to

    ''the case of a decision on an objection relating to—

    (i) pre-existing . . . arrangements . . . or

    (ii) an admission number''.

I took the precaution of reading the explanatory note, but it does not take us any further, and I am not sure how anyone could proceed on the basis of that information.

I accept that my hon. Friend the Minister will not have at his fingertips the information necessary to be able to answer all those points in detail. However, if he could give a commitment that clearer explanatory notes will be made available to members of the Committee and perhaps all hon. Members, that would assist us as we try to help our constituents to negotiate their way through the minefield that is the admissions procedures for many of our schools.

3.22 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, and particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton and for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), for participating in this important debate. I thank you, Mr. Benton, for allowing us to take both sets of regulations together. I think that I am right in saying that this is round five—the fifth sitting at which regulations on school admissions have been considered. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) has been in his place on all five occasions, whereas I am here for the first time—a substitute has been brought on for this sitting. My

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hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards is not here today.

I shall start with something that my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East said. The admissions process can be difficult for parents and pupils, particularly, but not exclusively, those going from primary to secondary school. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee share that view. We have all experienced people coming to our surgeries to discuss that. I, too, have a surgery tomorrow and will not be at all surprised if constituents attend to ask precisely those questions. It is incumbent on the Department, local education authorities and schools to ensure that information is available in a fully accessible form. I cannot say that, when I read the regulations in preparation for the debate, I immediately grasped their full implications. I found the explanatory notes somewhat more helpful than some hon. Members have suggested, but there is a serious point about plain English and the accessibility of what we are doing in the House. I will certainly undertake to bring that to the attention of the Department for Education and Skills, but it also has a broader resonance with the work of other Government Departments and the work of the House itself.

Norman Lamb: Does the Minister have a further explanatory note beyond that attached to the regulations? It might have been helpful to share it.

Mr. Twigg: I did not have a further explanatory note, but to be fair I did have the benefit of excellent officials giving me advice and I may even seek their inspiration during my response to the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton asked about the specific definition of ''parent'', which covers anybody who has care of a child. It is a broad definition and I am sure that the hon. Member agrees that it is rightly so. He also asked me about the meaning of paragraph 2(2)(ii), which provides that an objection cannot be made to the adjudicator in respect of an admission arrangement if the objector is seeking to alter the arrangements to introduce, vary or abandon selections arrangements made under section 28 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. [Hon. Members: ''Ah.''] In other words, it does not change the arrangements that we introduced in 1998 for grammar schools.

The first set of regulations is the Modification of Provisions Regulations 2002, which my advice tells me are purely technical. I congratulate the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West on his ingenuity in using this as an opportunity to raise several important issues. Throughout years 9 to 11 students should, of course, have a careers education programme delivered by their school. We are not suggesting that that should be required at an earlier stage of education. We have announced our intention to extend that to years 7 and 8—in other words, it should be available throughout secondary.

The Connexions service, which was established two years ago, is a universal service but, as hon. Members will be aware, it is a differentiated service because we were concerned about those young people who were

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most vulnerable and most at risk. We wanted to ensure that they got the best possible quality advice for their future lives and careers and in all sorts of other respects to ensure that young people got guidance according to their need. We have not set a minimum as a prescription from central Government. We believe that those matters are best determined at the local level between Connexions, schools and other providers.

Mr. Brady: The Minister will know that there is widespread concern that the resources of Connexions are perhaps focused too much on that part of the cohort that has the greatest problems and that it ought to be more widely available. Specifically, he said that he expects careers guidance to be available to all pupils from year 9 onwards. Would he expect every pupil at some point during secondary school to have a one-to-one careers guidance session?

Mr. Stephen Twigg: It is likely that that would be the case, but that is genuinely best determined in the school. I have seen some very good examples of schools that have connected up with the Connexion service in order to enhance their existing careers advice and guidance. It is best that we are careful about setting strict requirements on that from central Government or from Parliament, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree in that spirit of not wanting to impose unnecessary bureaucracy on our schools.

As regards the hon. Gentleman's related question concerning work-related learning opportunities, the recent 14 to 19 Green Paper suggests that work-related learning will be introduced subject to consultation from September 2004. Of course, in undertaking that consultation, we should be mindful of the ability of schools to implement that within the timescale, but the Department's desire is to achieve that in September 2004.

Mr. Brady: Specifically, will that be a statutory requirement or merely an aspiration?

Mr. Stephen Twigg: That is subject to consultation. We will seek views on whether it should be statutory or advisory. The general spirit of the 14 to 19 paper, as the hon. Member and others will know, is to reduce some curriculum requirements to enable greater flexibility in schools. Nevertheless, widespread concern has been expressed about the lack of work-related opportunities in schools. We shall, therefore, need to consider whether the right balance involves making arrangements compulsory or simply encouragement to schools and colleges to adopt them.

The hon. Gentleman also used the opportunity to raise the issue of exclusions from schools. The only message that I want to convey today is that both sides of the House want to support head teachers. In a small but disturbing number of cases, heads' decisions have been overturned. That is why we changed the composition of independent appeal panels and the guidance under which they operate. The changes have only just been introduced and it is incumbent on us all to monitor their impact closely. The hon. Gentleman and I would agree that it is important for the House to reaffirm head teachers' authority, while recognising

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that people have a right of appeal which should be fair to all parties.

As to the temporary nature of section 52, which is referred to in regulation 5 of the modification of provisions regulations, exclusion can apply to a nursery school only if it has a constituted governing body. Nursery school governing bodies will not begin to be constituted until September, so although the current definition under section 52 of the 2002 Act includes nursery schools, an existing definition relating to maintained schools has had to be substituted; at present, nursery schools do not have the relevant governing bodies. The appropriate provision will come into effect from September, after a short interim.

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